Colorado counts on rebuilt bullpen to prove doubters wrong, turn around franchise

The Colorado Rockies signed Pierce Johnson to a one-year, $5 million deal in the offseason to address the team’s needs in the bullpen. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

SCOTTSDALE – Coors Field is a pitcher’s worst nightmare.

The ball flies out of the ballpark with ease in the home of the Colorado Rockies, which is situated a mile above sea level in Denver, boosting hitting stats and, in exchange, ruining a pitcher’s stats and often his day.

It’s no wonder that many pitchers try to avoid pitching in Colorado as much as possible. Others, however, are up for the challenge, despite the park’s reputation as a hitter’s haven.

“It’s a very challenging place to pitch,” said Brent Suter, a newly acquired relief pitcher for the Rockies. “In the big leagues, being full time in Denver, it’s a challenge that I’m looking forward to.

“As a visiting team going into Coors (Field), it was always like, ‘Wow, it’s really hard to beat the Rockies at Coors.’ So we have to make sure we have that high ground and mentality that, ‘This is our house.’”

The Rockies have finished with a losing record in eight of their past 10 seasons, including a last-place finish in the NL West last season when Colorado finished with a dismal 68-94 record.

The problem has mostly been pitching.

The Rockies have never had a true ace since Ubaldo Jimenez’s run from 2006-10. Kyle Freeland is arguably the closest pitcher they’ve had to an ace since Jiminez. Freeland posted a 17-7 record with a 2.85 ERA in an impressive 2018 season and led the Rockies to their second straight playoff appearance that year.

However, his career ERA has since ballooned to 4.27, but he isn’t the only Rockies pitcher who has struggled.

Last season, Colorado pitchers compiled a team 5.06 ERA, which would have been higher if not for the stellar performance of closer Daniel Bard, who led the Colorado bullpen with an outstanding 1.79 ERA in 60.1 innings.

To address their pitching woes, the Rockies quietly had a busy offseason to address their needs and prioritized pitching with the signings of relievers Suter, Pierce Johnson and Brad Hand. The team also added 11 players with major league experience on minor league contracts, either signing them as free agents or trading for them.

“I think this year’s bullpen has a chance to be really solid,” said Colorado manager Bud Black. “This could be a very good bullpen with the ability to strike guys out. Bard, (Dinelson) Lamet, Pierce Johnson, Brad Hand, Suter – all five solid veteran pitchers with experience in the big leagues.”

And, Black added, “there’s some of the younger kids who are starting to break through.”

Johnson signed a one-year contract worth $5 million, plus incentives, after spending three seasons with the San Diego Padres, where he recorded a 3.39 ERA in 93 innings.

Johnson knows just what he’s getting into at Coors Field. The Denver attended high school in Arvada, on Denver’s western flank.

His decision to sign with the team he grew up watching was an easy one.

“It’s always been a destination for me … it’s home,” Johnson said. “It has always been a team I’ve wanted to join at some point in my career. It’s unbelievable, and the fact that I get to share this with all of my family means even more.”

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Suter was claimed off waivers from the Milwaukee Brewers in November. For the Rockies, adding a middle reliever was crucial following the departures of Carlos Estévez and Alex Colomé.

After spending his entire career up to this point with the Brewers, the 33-year-old Suter said he was ecstatic upon hearing the news. In seven seasons with the Brewers, Suter recorded a 3.51 ERA in 394.2 innings.

“When I got the call that it was the Rockies, my family and I were so excited. We love Denver, we’ve always respected the organization from the other side,” Suter said. “Getting to know everybody from the top down has just been genuine. I’m really excited to get the season going.”

The transition to a new team may seem exciting, but part of the deal is adjusting to a brand new atmosphere. For Suter, leaving the Brewers organization after 11 seasons wasn’t easy. The Brewers experience shaped him into the player he is today.

“I couldn’t be more thankful for the Brewers organization. All the relationships I’ve made over there … it was definitely emotional,” Suter said. “What they did for me, growing up from a boy to a man in that organization, meant a lot. Great memories I’ll cherish forever and relationships that’ll continue forever.”

Earlier this week, the Rockies announced they signed Hand to a one-year contract worth $2 million. The 3-time All-Star reliever has pitched in 12 major league seasons and enters the upcoming season three years removed from leading the majors in saves with 16 during the pandemic-shortened 60-game season in 2020. He has a career total of 131 saves.

With Daniel Bard locked up as closer, Hand is expected to fill the setup role and adds a lefty arm to the bullpen along with a veteran presence – and a newly developed cutter he has added to his arsenal.

Despite signing well into spring training, Hand is ready to help the club.

“He feels confident where he is,” Black said. “Here’s a veteran pitcher who knows himself better than anybody. As a relief pitcher, you don’t need the innings a starter needs (during spring training). He wants to get in there and get started.”

Nobody expected the Rockies to have a flashy offseason, but their under-the-radar bullpen moves may turn heads throughout this season. Although the Rockies are projected by many to finish last in the NL West against, the club’s newcomers believe they might surprise the experts.

“I want to shock some people,” Suter said. “I know no one’s giving us a chance. I feel like we have the group, the camaraderie, and the chemistry.

“You always love to be the underdog, I saw these projections that gave us a .1% (chance) to make the playoffs. That’s crazy. The last couple of years the Rockies have been down, so I’m looking forward to being a part of that turnaround.”

Aaron Schmidt EH-run shmit
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Aaron Schmidt expects to graduate in spring 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in film and media production. In addition to the Phoenix Sports Bureau, Schmidt reports for The Arizona Republic and The State Press. He has also interned with Arizona’s Family and Arizona Sports 98.7.